Harriet Tubman is one of the most prominent figures in American history. When she escaped slavery, she could easily have stayed up north and lived a simple-enough life as a free woman. However, she braved several heroic journeys on the Underground Railroad to rescue slaves and bring them to freedom.
Although Topeka K. Sam may not be a household name like Tubman, she is making history of her own. As a formerly incarcerated woman, Sam is confronting a system that disenfranchised her and millions of others.
Many people may not know that Sam was a major catalyst behind the 2018 viral video of Alice Marie Johnson, who served 21 years of a life sentence for a nonviolent drug charge. The video eventually led to Johnson being granted clemency by President Donald Trump. However, that’s not where Sam’s work to disrupt the American prison system began.
“I knew I was called to do this work when I was in prison,” Sam tells ESSENCE.
When Sam was released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, in 2015, she already had a plan for the work she would begin. That plan came to fruition with the launch of Hope House NYC in October 2017.
Hope House NYC is the housing arm of the Ladies of Hope Ministries, whose mission is to “help disenfranchised and marginalized women and girls transition back into society through resources and access to high-quality education, entrepreneurship, spiritual empowerment, advocacy and housing.” Hope House NYC provides one year of transitional housing for formerly incarcerated women and girls. In addition to meeting the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing, the program helps residents participate in a host of personal and professional development programs to aid in their successful re-entry to society. Such programs incorporate education, entrepreneurship and self-advocacy within the justice system.
Sam’s plans include expanding Hope House to Brooklyn, New Jersey and New Orleans in the next three months. Sam will also be launching a speakers bureau under the Ladies of Hope Ministries, which will provide media training to formerly incarcerated women and other women impacted by the justice system so that they can tell their stories. The goal is to find and place women in paid speaking engagements to create another source of income.
“I would say I made between $30,000 and $50,000 just from speaking last year,” Sam says. “I want to be able to create that same opportunity for other women as well.”
As director of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaign of #Cut50, Sam is taking her work to the federal level. Sam describes #Cut50 as a bipartisan effort “to cut crime and the prison population in half in the next 10 years.”
In this role, Sam not only seeks to end and find alternatives to the incarceration of women and girls but also provides dignity provisions to ensure humane conditions while they are incarcerated. This includes making changes on the federal level, through the FIRST STEP Act, to end shackling of incarcerated women who are in labor; providing free feminine hygiene products; eliminating strip searches conducted by male guards; and keeping mothers in close proximity to their children.
Working on the federal level means working with the current White House administration, but Sam believes that you don’t have to agree with someone to get a task done. She states: “The beauty in all this is that we all realize that [mass incarceration] is a huge problem in this country. I think what people understand on both sides is that it is not fiscally responsible and … it is attacking every single community. It’s forcing people to look at themselves because now it’s in their backyard, too.”
Although she never thought she would be a public figure in the media, Sam is dominating on all platforms. Every Sunday at 9 a.m., she hosts The Topeka K. Sam Show, a weekly radio show on SiriusXM radio where she features women who have been impacted by the justice system.
She’s also the first formerly incarcerated person on the board of directors for the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.
“I’m excited to work with and learn from people who have been doing the work in this space from a journalist and media perspective, and to add my input on what I and others can bring as people who have been impacted by incarceration, so that we can make sure that language is being used to humanize this issue,” Sam says.
In October 2018 she landed a deal with 44 Blue Productions to create scripted and unscripted series inspired by her activism for incarcerated women.
“When you change a woman, you can change the world,” Sam says of her deliberate focus on advocating for formerly incarcerated women.
Although Sam’s work produces major results for progress, she says that she has met with some unexpected opposition. Disagreements with former partners about strategies, ideas and collaborations have soured some relationships.
“It’s hurtful that the same people that you’re working for and with to liberate are working against you, when we’re fighting against the government. We shouldn’t be fighting against each other.”
Nevertheless, Sam finds balance by continuing to keep her eyes on the prize.
“I stay grounded. I have a great support system. I have a great relationship with God, and because of that, I keep pressing forward,” she says. “This is for the long haul.”